Sammy Davis, Jr. —Head Nigger in Charge

Expanded from Las Vegas CityLife 2-6-2003

[Editor's note: This column appeared in Las Vegas CityLife's Black History Month edition, the theme of which is described by Managing Editor Matt O'Brien at the bottom of the page.]

A long time ago in a Las Vegas far, far away, Sammy Davis, Jr., left a high-hearted lesson about how to treat the word "nigger," a story never placed into the historical record until now.

Nevada calls herself the battle born state, spawned for political expediency during the Civil War. That troubled delivery left a birthmark. A century later, the Silver State lived with the stain as Mississippi West.

Black people could work in businesses reserved for whites but could not patronize their own employers. Reno had a small ghetto of black clubs, the most famous of which was owned by the respected Bill Fong, part of another minority long oppressed in Nevada history.

Gomorrah South likewise practiced apartheid. The story has been often told how the Chairman of the Board — Sinatra himself — knocked a major crack in that ugly wall when he ordered that his friend Sammy Davis, Jr., be allowed to stay at the legendary Sands Hotel with the rest of his Rat Pack colleagues.

Almost 50 years later, the old birthmark has not washed away. Witness the recent study showing how African-Americans get rousted by Nevada police much more often than those flying other colors.

Racism today is certainly much more low key. Only rarely does a Trent Lott come out of the linen closet wearing white sheets.

In one of his classic bits, comedian Lenny Bruce hurled every racial and ethnic slur in the book. After getting the audience hot enough to cook tar and feathers, Bruce would inform them that he had just delivered a lesson about bigotry. He advocated saying offensive words — spic, guinea, mick, polack, hunky, hebe, kike, nigger — again and again and again until, by such overuse, they would lose all meaning and we would see them for what they are.

Just words. Sounds which morph into bullets only when we load them with venom.

Sammy Davis, Jr., understood. In the late 1960s, a Las Vegas radio personality ordered a vanity license plate reading "HNIC," an abbreviation for "Head Nigger in Charge." The gentleman in question was quite white and went on to a stellar career promoting musicians of every color.

One day, he got a call from Mr. Davis offering $5,000 for the plate. Davis didn't want to get the phrase off the streets. He wanted it for his personal use, perhaps to adorn the Easy Rider-style "Vegas Stripper" chopper monstercycle he had customized at Murray Hertz's Scootersville Honda.

The radio man did not sell. The Nevada Dept. of Motor Vehicles says the plate is not currently on the road and that the records from that time have been lost. Just as well.

In its day, "HNIC" was used in a self-deprecating manner in the sense that every boss answers to another boss who fetches coffee for one even higher up the pecking order.

Sammy, like Lenny, knew how to treat the N-Word.

Use it. Overuse it. Wear it out. Laugh it low. Grind it down until it implodes and blows away like an old Strip hotel.

Sammy and Sinatra have joined the sands of history. But the lessons they left still work. Take charge.

Be well. Raise hell.
Andrew Barbano moved to Las Vegas in 1969 to work through the summer. Thirty-four endless summers later, he is a columnist for the Daily Sparks Tribune and editor of and
He serves on the political action committee of the Reno-Sparks NAACP.

From Las Vegas CityLife Managing Editor Matt O'Brien

     Our first issue in February, tied in with Black History Month, is going to explore racism in the Las Vegas Valley. It's a sensitive issue, we realize, but one that we think is still alive and needs to be addressed rather than ignored. Pieces in the issue will include an intro explaining why we think dialogue on this subject is important, a commentary on why Black History Month is deserved, and a statistical sidebar on racism by the numbers in the valley. We are also asking a variety of Las Vegans — white, black, Hispanic, female, male, politicians, artists, activists — what the dreaded N-word (nigger) means or has meant to them in their lives. | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
Guinn Watch | Deciding Factors


Copyright © 2003 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 34-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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